It all started as a joke. Chris Sondles-principal owner of Woody's Hot Rodz in Bright, Indiana-was shopping with his wife one day when he found a peculiar yellow Hot Wheels car. The Chevy Vega Hot Wheels toy had a big-block Corvette stinger hood, fat tires, and proclaimed to be a big-block car. As chance would have it, the 99-cent toy was painted "Jegs" yellow, so Sondles bought it, and mailed it to his long-time friend, Mike Coughlin as a gag Christmas gift. Yes, that Mike Coughlin, who with his brothers Troy, Jeg Jr., and John, oversee Jegs, the giant mail-order speed shop.

“I’d been building cars for Mike since 2006,” says Sondles. “We both had an affinity for Vegas because of our fathers. His dad, Jeg Coughlin, raced one in Pro Stock. My dad, Fred, worked at the Vega plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where they built them, but he also had an ISCA show-winning Vega.”

Historically, the Vega's compact dimensions and light weight made it a staple of race cars and street machines through the '70s and '80s. Built in an era where V-8 powerplants were ubiquitous even in lightweight domestic compacts, the '71-75 GM H-platform compact was never offered with one, although much to their credit, engineers left enough room for one. That made it perfect for going fast on the cheap. Nevertheless, the Vega and its H-platform stablemates have long since fallen out of favor with hot rodders due to their scarcity.

The lack of interest in a classic rear-drive compact that could famously swallow a V-8 sounds odd in light of the fact that GM built nearly 1.9 million of them from 1971 to 1977 (Chevy and Pontiac combined), but these cars lived hard, short lives. Their unsleeved aluminum four-cylinder engines swilled more oil than gas, and their poorly treated steel bodywork turned to rust after precious few years. Most have already returned to the earth from whence they came. But we said most.

Sondles dives into the story: "A couple of weeks after Christmas 2010, Mike called me at the shop and his words to me were, 'Hey, we've gotta build this thing.' I said, 'what thing?' And he said, 'this Hot Wheels car.' I told him the hardest part would be finding one that's not rusted. That's when he says, 'No worries, I bought one off eBay today!' " A few weeks after that conversation, a car carrier pulled up to Woody's Hot Rodz with a rust-free, one-owner, low-miles '71 Vega GT. "It even came from Michigan," says a bewildered Sondles, pointing out the state's propensity for accelerated oxidation.

It was crystal clear that Mike was serious, so Sondles made one more trip to the supermarket—ostensibly for another Hot Wheels car. This one would be sent to artist Josh Shaw of Shaw’s Hot Rods with Sondles’ instructions: “Do the Hot Wheels car, but make it more real to life, and make the design ours.” At first blush, those instructions might sound cryptic, but the intent was understood—this was going to be an all-new car, with nothing being shared with the original except the outer skin. It also was going to be a major departure from the Jegs tradition of drag racing—this Vega was going to fully embrace the art of handling, both on the road and on the track.

One of the greatest challenges in building a car like this is that the aesthetics of style and stance don't necessarily translate easily into a car that's practical, fast, or enjoyable to drive. Getting the stance and wheels to look right while maintaining proper ground clearance for the street and razor-sharp handling on the track meant ordering an Art Morrison Max G chassis specially designed for the Vega. Now dubbed the "Jega" (short for Jegs Vega), the finished car would essentially be a Morrison chassis skinned with a Vega body.